As a title for a book, Jesus of Arabia might seem dangerously close to a provocation in a region where for more than 14 centuries, Islam rather than Christianity has prevailed.
In fact, says the author, Reverend Andrew Thompson, his new book was originally to be called the Gospel of the Gulf — the Khaleeji Gospel: “But this was felt to be too ambiguous.”
The eventual title was picked by a local sheikh. “It was the one he liked best. It really caught his eye.”
The subtitle of the book is: “Understanding the teachings of Christ through the culture of the Arabian Gulf.” Perhaps, though, it is misunderstandings between Christianity and Islam that more concern the Rev Thompson, the chaplain at St Andrew’s, Abu Dhabi’s Anglican church.
“Jesus of Arabia?” says Mr Thompson. “For me as an Englishman, I automatically think of Lawrence of Arabia, the romanticism of the desert. But also, it is a reminder as an Englishman that this is Jesus’ part of the world.
“As westerners, we created Jesus in our own image, but the historical Jesus was a child of the Middle East and we need to go back to the historical Jesus to have a deeper and more profound understanding of who he was and how his teachings were understood and achieved at that time.”
What this means, says Mr Thompson, is that Jesus — “a Palestinian Jew” — was living and teaching in a culture that would still be familiar across Arabia today. His book takes what he calls “four distinctive markets of Arab culture in the Gulf”, including family, faith, language and the role of women. “All these things are very similar to the culture that Jesus grew up in 2,000 years ago.”
“The cultural context was similar, with strong emphasis on family,” he explains. “It was tribal, we had that mix of the Bedouin and the settled. We had the very strong oral tradition – people learnt and were educated by memorising poetry – and when you try to relate Jesus’ teaching back into the Aramaic, the language in which he taught, you see the genius of the poet at work in terms of rhythm and rhyming, which means Jesus teachings were likely to be passed on generation to generation.”
Many of the obligations and customs of Jesus’ time make more sense to Muslims in the Arabian Gulf than they would to western Christians, in particular his role in the family as the first-born son.
“The first-born son carries a heavy burden,” says Mr Thompson. “He takes on the mantle and the role of the father, with all sorts of theological permutations there.”
He refers to the biblical account of the crucifixion: “Right up to his last moments, when he tells his disciples ‘look after my mother,’ and made sure Mary was provided for; his duty as the first-born son.”
Other stories from the New Testament either take on new significance or can be completely reinterpreted when viewed from an Arab cultural perspective.
“For example, when you go into a majlis, the most important person sits on the right hand of the sheikh, the next most important person sits on the left hand of the sheikh and so it goes all the way round the room,” says Mr Thompson. “At least that’s the theory.”
“And when Jesus is teaching about a banquet, he is saying ‘don’t assume you are the most important person in the room who will automatically sit on the right hand of the host’ and he teaches humility to his disciples.
“Today, we talk about Jesus sitting on the right hand of the Father as a place of honour and that makes sense to an Arab”
He likes also to tell a story from the Gospel of Luke, of Zaccheus, a tax collector from Jericho who climbs a tree to watch Jesus arriving in the town. “Jesus says to him, I’m going to your house, come down.”
“Most western Christians read the shocking element as Jesus associating with a tax collector, a hated collaborator with the Roman emperor.” A friend of his, though, says Mr Thompson, read the same story with a group of Omani Muslims as part of an interfaith dialogue initiative.
“The Omani Muslim Arabs’ response was: ‘How rude. He invited himself to another man’s house without waiting to be invited.’ They said even the Sultan of Oman would not go into another man’s house unless he is invited first.
“The only person who has that prerogative would be God himself, they added. And then they stopped when they realised the import of what they were saying. It was a cultural insight I would never have seen.”
This lack of insight from both faiths is something that concerns Mr Thompson. “I wrote this book because I was increasing concerned with the growing gap between Christianity and Islam; the acts of terrorism and the Islamophobic response in the West.
“There is massive ignorance or fear in the West about Islam, so I’m trying to write a book which bridges the gap; Where I am saying to westerners that the people of the Gulf have far more in common with Jesus than we realise. And I am saying to Muslims, the Jesus of the Bible, he is one of you.”
There are, of course, fundamental differences between the perception of Jesus in Islam, as a prophet, and in Christianity as the Son of God.
“My kindest Muslim friends say to me ‘Andy, you’re just one prophet short. One more prophet and you are home and dry’,” he jokes.
But as a Christian priest: “I cannot see past the one prophet who laid his life down for me. As much as I respect the incredible accomplishments of the Prophet Mohammed, at the end of the day as a Christian I am moved by his [Jesus] sacrifice for me.”
Better understanding between the faiths can be achieved by looking for similarities rather than differences, he believes. “As Christians we have no problems in identifying Moses being a prophet. He spoke about God, he united his people under religious law, but a lot of Christians have difficulty in recognising Mohammed as a prophet. And sometimes when a Christian says to me that Mohammed is a false prophet, that he is not pointing the way to the same God, I say to them what’s the difference between him and Moses? When you look at their beliefs about God they are remarkably similar.
“God is the creator of the Heavens and the Earth. God has revealed his will through the prophets and through scriptures and through divine law. Tell me what’s the difference?
“The problem with Christians, of course, is that we look at prophets as pointing the way to Jesus. But I think there is a way of reading the Quran.
“You can say it does point to Jesus. Jesus is mentioned more times in the Quran than any other prophet, including the Prophet Mohammed himself. Jesus is described in the Quran as the word from God, the spirit from God.
“If you read the text for itself, and there is a way, in fact many ways, in which the Quran honours Jesus very significantly.”
Jesus of Arabia carries an introduction by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, in which he expresses hope that the book can be the basis for interfaith dialogue, in particular the joint reading of scriptures like the Quran and the Bible.
This is also something Mr Thompson hopes will happen in time. “I am challenging Muslims to read the scriptures with us and tell us what you see from your Islamic perspective, but I’m also challenging Christians to read the Quran and to feedback to Muslims what they see.
“We need to have this discussion more than ever before, The opposite of dialogue is no dialogue and where there is no dialogue, ignorance prospers and fear flourishes.”